I remember reading a number of old guides to Venice that emphasized an almost total lack of “green” – parks, gardens, even of trees in the campi (authors’ names withheld to protect the silly). I was therefore first perplexed by those recollections and then quickly and pleasantly surprised when visiting decades ago to find SO MUCH “green” in the City!
As with so many other delightful and even sometimes rare attributes of Venice, the authors of too many “helpful” works on any aspect of the place seem to rely very heavily upon the statements of their predecessors, and modify statements to make them more unique, more final, more startling. Some must have encountered only the much-less verdant Sestiere San Marco rather than the reaches and hidden pleasures of Cannaregio and the other districts. Some must obviously journey to Venice from a lush rural paradise or open pastoral plains, and would “naturally” observe a lack of green in any city!
Today, we have “Google Earth(c)” to use, in addition to our own eyes, to see the remarkable extent of green in a City where much of it from centuries before, vegetable farms and marshes, has been developed.
Of course, the vast majority of it is hidden behind high privacy walls that still often reveal a fringe of vines atop them and green trees looming behind them. Look up! Look around the corners and along a ramo, through the old wrought iron gates. Many of the private gardens are an unkempt, tangled jungle, while others are exquisite creations of period landscape architecture.
The several public Giardini (Ex Giardini Reali, Giardini Papadopoli, Giardini Publicca), a broad array of private gardens, and a few Campi (San Pietro di Castello as the prime example) or Campielli (Widmann in Cannaregio, for example) provide a broad range of opportunity for immersion into the sometimes elusive Garden City.
The athletic fields on Sant’Elena are a broad swath of green, on relatively new land reclaimed from the Lagoon – but then, didn’t almost all of Venice and its plentitude of gardens develop in that way? A great many cloisters within Monasteries and Monarchi have formal contemplative gardens, and where their outlying grounds still exist, the centuries old food gardens sometimes now “recultivated” into playfields or planted with new schools and housing.
Some of the Palazzi giardini are now quite accessible, since they have come into the ownership of governmental agencies, universities and private foundations. The garden of the Palazzo Franchetti adjacent to Campo San Vidal at the foot of the Ponte Accademia is a very visible example. Although much less accessible to the public, for summer concert attendees, the setting for the Teatro Verde on Isola San Giorgio Maggiore is grand.
Even the alleged dearth of trees in campi reported by past authors makes their (quite widespread) appearance more startling. Check out Campi San Alvise, Ghetto Nuovo, Santa Sophia, Apostoli, Santa Maria Nova, San Vidal, San Samuele, Traghetto, Santa Maria Zobenigo, Ss. Giovanni e Paolo (the east end), San Francesco della Vigna, d’Confraternita, Bandiera e Moro, d’la’Arsenale and Stringari, San Polo and San Barnabas, or Santa Margherita – and add your own examples. Campo San Zaccharia has a generous tangle of fenced-off greenery hiding delightful objects in its midst, in the corner in front of the older church.
Even study of street signs and neighborhood history will reveal quite a few places named because of a former garden, or the trees that grew on that calle, or the grape vines that flourished in a number of locations.
Of course, in Venice, the three-dimensional mass of stone and brick, and the seemingly endless spread of water whether of canals and rii or the Lagoon, are the major demand on our vision and the vast majority of the City’s area.
The water will always quietly prevail, even as it passive-aggressively expands its reach during its aqua alta attempts to reclaim its lost domain. The hard stone demands our obsequious attention before its horizontal claim upon the nature of the lagoon as it spreads beneath our feet and its vertical claim upon the dominion of the sky. The work of men. Yet, even then, a vast and clever array of flower boxes hung on a multitude of balcony railings and a rooftop altana or two reminds us of the major treasures of “green”.
As you visit or live in Venice, savor the precious moments of being “in the green”, even where it is “the work of men”, not the natural landscape of the Lagoon, and when it is lovingly (or selfishly, or wisely) protected by those towering walls of brick and stone…
Garden walls in a Green City.